Judge orders test of autistic girl's ability to testify

January 11, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

A judge in Frederick County yesterday ordered that an autistic girl be tested to determine whether she could use a controversial communication method to testify about rape allegations.

Judge William M. Cave's decision in county Circuit Court came after a pretrial hearing in which several specialists gave conflicting testimony on the validity of "facilitated communication."

In that procedure, an aide holds the girl's hand or arm while she types on a computer keyboard.

In this case, believed to be the first of its kind in Maryland, the 10-year-old girl typed in 1992 that she had been sexually assaulted at a Frederick special education center. Later, using the same communication method, she identified the suspect, a retarded man who was a teacher's aide at the school.

David Ross, 27, has been charged with several crimes, including battery, child abuse and second-degree rape.

His attorney, Scott L. Rolle, had asked the judge to exclude the girl's testimony and to test her ability to testify with an aide. "I'm pleased with [the judge's decision]," Mr. Rolle said.

Questions about facilitated communication center on an aide's influence over typed information.

Howard C. Shane, a specialist in communication disorders at the Children's Hospital in Boston, was among the experts who argued that the procedure doesn't work.

He and two other specialists cited various tests in which children produced only gibberish when aides were not allowed to look at the keyboard.

Others, such as Don Cardinal, an associate professor at Chapman University in California, said facilitated communication does work under the right conditions, which include testing the child in a familiar setting with a familiar aide.

"Facilitated communication can work for some people, under some conditions," he said, testifying by phone.

After the testing is done, Judge Cave is expected to decide whether to exclude the girl's testimony from the trial, scheduled for June 21. He left the details of testing to Mr. Rolle and prosecutor Kathi Hill.

"[The judge] tried to be fair," said Ms. Hill. "He didn't preclude her testimony."

She said victims with disabilities have a right to be heard. "We can't close the courthouse door to people with disabilities -- how can we close the courtroom?"

Ms. Hill, assistant state's attorney in Carroll County, is prosecuting the case because the sister of the local state's attorney works at the school where the alleged abuse occurred.

Judge Cave of Montgomery County is hearing the case because the girl's father works in the Frederick County courthouse.

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